Picture a person running. You’re probably picturing them wrong. It’s okay, you wouldn’t be alone. It turns out that artists have been drawing people running incorrectly for thousands of years. From Greek vases to drawing handbooks to modern sculptures, even our very best artists can’t seem to get the pose right.
To successfully run, a person swings opposite arms and legs. As the right leg goes forward, the right arm goes back, and vice versa. You can easily confirm this by attempting to run in place right now. Here’s Usain Bolt, current world record holder for the 100-yard dash, showing how it’s done.
But if you were asked to draw a person running, many of you would have the resulting stick figure (and let’s be real, you’d draw a stick figure) moving their right arm and right leg forward at the same time. A new paper aims to figure out why this mistake is both so common, and so hard for us to detect.
Drawing a person running improperly has a storied artistic history. Julian Meltzoff, a psychologist and the author of that recent paper, runs through the history of artists getting this pose totally wrong. Here are a few examples.
Around 660 B.C. the Egyptian god Khonsu defied not only death, but the physics of walking.
It shows up in this Greek vase from 530 B.C.
Famous painters like Donatello and Da Vinci make the same mistake. Here is a detail from Donatello’s The Cantoria. About half of his angels are posed correctly, while the other half are not.
Drawing guides later reinforced the problem. Here is an image from Peter Paul Rubens’s Théorie de la Figure Humaine, a guide to representing the human form, published in 1773.
And it’s not just Western art that can’t seem to get this right. Here’s a famous painting by the 18th century Japanese artist Utamuro called The Shower.
Today's modern guides for figure drawing perpetuate the problem.
Even a New Yorker cover in 2005 fell victim to the difficulty.
If you had a hard time seeing the error in these images, you’re not alone. In fact, for all the studying of the human form we humans do every day, we’re terrible at replicating and identifying the correct walking or running posture. Meltzoff’s study also looked into just how good people were at identifying correct and incorrect running posture. When participants were presented with a person walking, and asked to label which legs and arms were the right and the left, only 17 percent of them got it right. The other 83 percent marked the forward arm and leg as both being on the same side. In fact, they would have done just as well to guess randomly. And when participants were asked to pose in mid-run, only 14 percent of them picked the pose that actually reflected running. The other 86 percent froze with the same sided arm and leg moving forward.
When it comes to art, it’s possible that rather than being an error, the awkward, one sided lurch forward is an artistic choice. In Egyptian art, for example, artists followed strict rules about the position of the head and body. But as art evolved, and as accuracy of form become more and more important, it’s hard to imagine why someone like Da Vinci or Donatello would intentionally draw a person running in such an inaccurate pose. And modern “how to draw” guides are certainly not intentionally teaching someone the wrong posture.
But what about when it comes to our physical bodies? What's going on with the people who couldn't pose in the right running position? Jens Foell, a psychology researcher at Florida State University thinks it has to do with proprioception: the way we perceive the existence and placement of our body. “Even if you wake up in a dark room and can't feel anything on your skin, you'll still have some information about the arrangement of your limbs,” Foell says. “As such, it is a bona fide sense and is my second-favorite example to bring up whenever somebody perpetuates the 'only five senses' myth.”
Proprioception happens on multiple levels. There is information that the brain has built in about where arms and legs are (that information is why some people experience phantom limb pain after an amputation; their brains still thinks the limb is there). And there is also information coming in from the extremities. As you wiggle your fingers, your brain gets information coming in about what that feels like. How much of each of those two things—our internal map and our sensory input—make up proprioception is still a bit of a mystery, Foell says. But they’re both involved, and they both happen in the background of your perception when you’re asked to think about running position. “If you stretch out your hand to grab a pen, you're not thinking in terms of muscle tension, coordination of bones, increased blood flow to those muscles, and so on,” he says. The same goes for thinking about running.
This is a common mistake when it comes to thinking about how we think about movement, says Andrew Wilson, a psychology researcher at Leeds Beckett University in the U.K. “Just because you spend a lot of time doing something doesn’t mean you know a lot about it,” he says.
The standard story about learning goes something like this: You assemble a collection of pieces of information about a thing that builds to an internal representation of that thing. So as you learn to run, you’re building a mental model of what running involves in your head—right arm goes forward, right leg goes back. Once you can accurately imagine the movement, you can tell your arms and legs to do it. But that’s not actually how learning happens, Wilson says. “When I learned to run, I did not build an abstract store of knowledge about how to arrange my limbs which I then call upon when I want to do running related things.”
Wilson also points out that there’s a huge difference between asking someone to strike a running pose, and asking someone to run. “The only thing your postural systems cares about is staying upright, maintaining balance,” he says. “Running is about dynamic balance; maintaining balance as your mass moves. This is why we run in a contralateral pose–that’s how you balance out all the various forces and preserve your upright posture. Posing as if running is static balance.” In other words, the body asked to pose and asked to run is acting on two very different requests.
Wilson says it’s possible that when standing, the homolateral pose is just more stable, while the contralateral pose is far more like a yoga-balancing act. Wilson even tested this a bit after I sent him the paper. “I tried the postures out on myself and some colleagues and we all did the homolateral pose first. If I’m right, people are not making an error: They are correctly solving different tasks that require different solutions.”